Forty-Two

I’m going to keep insisting that the beard is prematurely gray.

ChuckWithPeleThis blog is getting increasingly irrelevant as there are more ways for me to vomit my opinions into the cybersphere, but the tradition of the annual birthday post remains sacrosanct.

Speaking of tradition, seeing the Supreme Court Justices who still have a conscience overturn or dismiss years of legislated bigotry was a great highlight for a birthday week. I’m really happy for my friends who want to get married, and especially for the folks who’ll be able to go about their lives without the constant specter of immigration hassles hanging over their heads. And of course, more long term, I’m happy for all the kids who’re going to have enough to worry about with a normal adolescence, no longer having to worry, “If I’m true to myself, I’ll have to give up any hope of having this kind of life.” From now on, they’ll just have to worry about the other 10,000 things you have to worry about as a young adult.

Of course, all the celebration was tempered somewhat by the knowledge that the courts have still left equality up to the individual states to decide. Which means that until the rest of the senseless bans and anti-family initiatives are overturned, couples will have to be crossing state lines to get married. So congratulations, “family values” proponents: you’ve awarded matrimony all the honor and respect that buying fireworks has.

Earlier this week, I took myself to Disneyland for an impromptu overnight trip. I took advantage of the fact that I’m now unemployed to go during weekdays, when everybody in the Bay Area was working. And when everyone in Southern California was at Disneyland, apparently. Still, every bit of frustration melted away as soon as I got through the gate. I’d forgotten how much more immediate, spontaneous, and social everything feels there after being at Walt Disney World for so long. I got to ride all my must-sees, and have a few drinks at the incomparable Trader Sam’s. But I had the best time once I remembered to stop concentrating on the rides and just enjoy being in a place designed to make people happy — and where I don’t have to be on call in case something breaks.

This weekend is another trip to LA for a non-Disneyland trip, to see the Stanley Kubrick exhibit and visit some old and new friends. Two trips to Los Angeles in one week? Am I dreaming?! Just one night in Anaheim had my sinuses closing up and me struggling to breathe, like Ed Harris in The Abyss. Really, though, I’m looking forward to it.

It’s still strange seeing the years tick by. In my head, I’m perpetually around 29 years old, and I’m baffled whenever anyone calls me “sir,” or when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Sure, my last-gasp attempt at hipsterism has me looking less like a Brooklynite and more like I live at the North Pole, but what the hell. I’m digging it.

Shadows of the Empire

What I learned from a job at LucasArts fifteen years ago.


Last week Disney finally put the pillow over LucasArts’s face and held firmly but impassively as the heart monitor flatlined and the gold guy gave one final twitch. This is undeniably bad news for all the people still working at the Presidio, and I sincerely hope they find new work quickly. But for everyone else, it should be along the same lines as any other video game studio closing.

Should be, but to hear the internet tell it, the news is “tragic” and spells the death of their most formative years. The closure of LucasArts caused a huge uptick in the number of online hagiographies, but strangely made no significant difference in the number of LucasArts games sold.

Okay, that’s an easy, cheap shot. Why can’t I just leave everyone to their eulogizing? Why not let people get sentimental about an environment that hasn’t existed for over a decade, if in fact it ever existed? I already said my piece on Facebook, a few times: it sucks that so many people are out of a job — especially since everybody involved in 1313 seemed to be proud of what they were making — but this is hardly unexpected, and it’s been a long time coming. Management has let in-house development falter while the standout games have been third-party licenses. And getting angry at Disney for “killing” LucasArts is like watching someone with a beautiful, pristine sports car let it slowly, slowly coast head-first over a cliff, and then getting mad at the insurance company for totaling it.

Still, it seems like it should be a big deal. That job and that company were life-changing for me in just about every way possible. It meant leaving my family and friends to move 3000 miles away to a state where I knew almost no one apart from my co-workers. For years, everyone I knew was either directly or indirectly through LucasArts. Every job I’ve had since then, except for one, was a result of knowing people at LEC. (And even at that one job, we spent most of the interview talking about the problems of LucasArts). I’ve worked for two studios that were formed mainly from ex-Lucas employees. The most rewarding work of my career to date was the “spiritual successor” to one of LucasArts’s classic games. I can’t say I’ve really missed LEC, since I feel like I’ve never entirely gotten out from under its shadow.

Ultimately, I think that’s why — at the risk of sounding selfish, callous, and flippant to all the people who lost their jobs — I can’t get all that upset about the closure of the studio. As far as I’m concerned, it served its purpose, and that’s nothing to be sad about. It completely changed my perception of crunch time and the creative process; and it had a huge influence on the development of games as a medium, an influence that’s not only still alive, but thriving.

What It Takes to Make Something Great

On Facebook, there’ve been a lot of ex-Lucas employees posting their memories of the company. Several of them have ended by saying that it was the best job they’d ever had, which just made me feel guilty for my good fortune, because I’ve had a whole string of jobs that were much better.

And then there’s this eulogy for LucasArts written by one of the employees directly affected by the closure. I don’t want to sound dismissive of it, and I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’m mocking it, since it was well-done and heartfelt. More importantly, it was about the people there, and it’s always been the people, not the licenses, that made the company. It’s just that looking at the pictures, I realized that there’s been so much turn-over through the years that I recognized only one of the dozens of people still working there. But reading the text — with the description of extended crunch time, missed once-in-a-lifetime family obligations, having to put family on hold for the sake of work, and having to suffer through the consequences of poor decisions by management — I thought: that’s the LucasArts I remember.

What’s most frustrating about these accounts is the underlying sense that crunch time is inevitable. That it’s all part of the sacrifices required to make something outstanding. That attitude is endemic to almost every game development studio, but it was particularly heavy at LEC. And it’s nonsense. If you’re working crunch time, that means simply that someone has fucked up. It could be the producer who made the schedule. It could be the executive who insisted on a totally unrealistic deadline. It could be the designer or lead whose direction was ambiguous and resulted in a huge re-working. It could be the co-worker who made a mistake and left it for you to clean up. And if it’s none of those people, then it’s you. Either for not making good estimates, or for not managing your time well.

Whatever the case, it’s an error, a mistake, something to be fixed. Just because it always happens doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable. If a studio doesn’t treat it as a mistake to be learned from, then they’re going to just write it into their schedules, and it’s never going to change. And if a company is still making the same mistakes in 2013 that they were making in 1999, then they deserve to go out of business. Even if they did make Day of the Tentacle.

A Family Company

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Before this post is interpreted as a curmudgeonly “Good riddance, LucasArts!” we should all be clear on one thing: I was, and remain, a hopeless, stuttering fan of the “good old days” of the company. I’ve said it before, but The Secret of Monkey Island was the game that made me switch majors in college; it showed me that video games could be a viable medium for storytelling, and not just a diversion. I went on to buy every LucasArts game sight unseen. Almost immediately after I finished Full Throttle, I decided that was enough, and I had to send in a resume “cold.” I was ecstatic when I got an interview. They took me to Skywalker Ranch and casually showed me the display case holding C-3P0’s arm and the Holy Grail. They told me I was interviewing for a job on a sequel to Monkey Island and my stomach flipped and I felt as if I’d had the wind knocked out of me. The “test” for the job was getting to play around with SCUMM for a few hours, using characters from Full Throttle against backdrops from Hit the Road. When I left, I said that even if I didn’t get the job, I’d be happy just having toured the studio and meeting the people, and I meant every word of it. And a few weeks later, when I found out I’d gotten the job, I just lost it. I kind of collapsed on the couch in my apartment and just cried for like ten minutes straight. (Something I’d repeat several times over the next few years, but for very different reasons).

As far as I was concerned, I was Charlie Bucket in the Wonkavator.

There wasn’t anything particularly special about that; a ton of people were there because they were fans of Star Wars or Tucker: The Man and His Dream. As the years went on, there were more of us who weren’t just fans of Lucasfilm, but of the games division in particular. Which is fortunate; few people ever get to work at a place they love so much. The problem is when it gets corrupted to the point where being a super-fan isn’t just creepy and excessive, but expected.

And LucasArts definitely took advantage of it. Sometimes it was explicit — at a review I had a manager acknowledge that the company paid less than the industry standard, but they believed that one of the benefits of working at LucasArts was getting to work at LucasArts. A lot of the time, it wasn’t — you don’t need to keep cracking the whip and shouting “you’re lucky we let you work here” when you’ve got people who already believe it. I don’t even think it was entirely malicious; I’m sure a lot of people really believed that that kind of devotion is required to make great games.

Whatever the reason, it got to be pervasive and destructive. It meant getting burnt out from working nights and weekends, constantly having to manage people’s defensiveness and insecurity, and an environment where even asking for scheduled vacation time had this layer of guilt slathered on top of it. You weren’t just letting down the team, you were letting down the family.

The standout for me was when my boss was in the middle of berating me for something or other (a general bad attitude, if I remember correctly) and said, “You are not to question me.” That surprised me for two reasons: first, because I didn’t think people actually ever said that. I’d always put it in the same category as “I’m getting too old for this shit” and “He’s a loose cannon, but he’s the best there is;” Things People Only Say In Movies.

The other reason it surprised me was because until that point, it’d never even occurred to me to question him. Question some of his decisions, sure. Question the direction my career was going and whether I wanted to keep doing that, definitely. But I never once doubted that the game was going to brilliant, that all the hours and all the stress was going to be worth it, and that the lousy time I was having was just the kind of sacrifice you had to make if you wanted to make something great. If ever my life called for a “glass shattering” sound effect, it was then.

So what? Everybody’s had a boss they didn’t agree with, and everybody’s had to work on a mismanaged project at one time or another. But my moment of clarity came from realizing that it’s not so simple as we tend to think of it: callous execs taking advantage of people just trying to make an honest living. We’re all culpable to one degree or another. If I’ve learned anything about con artists from movies and TV, it’s that the trap you set for someone else is never as reliable as the trap they set for themselves. And best of all is the trap that they demand you let them walk into. A lot of times, we wear overtime as a badge of honor — adversity keeps the team together, working long hours shows how passionate and committed we are — instead of acknowledging it as unnecessary, and a sign that something’s gone wrong.

Years later I went on to work at Electronic Arts for Maxis on SimCity 4. It was another sequel to one of my favorite games at one of my favorite studios. I’m still as proud of that game as anything else I’ve worked on. And I wasn’t keeping track, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I spent more hours on just the first eight or nine months there than I did the entire time I was at LucasArts. I later went on to the infamous “EA Spouse” project (I still say “the infamous EA Spouse project” is a better title than what the game actually shipped with), and that experience was every bit as awful as a class action suit would imply.

Still, I would’ve signed on for a dozen more of those before I would’ve gone back to LEC. The difference was that nobody at EA had any illusions that it was anything other than a bunch of competent adults working together in a mutually beneficial business arrangement. It was the first time in my adult life I was able to get out of debt — it’s amazing how much better people work when they’re not constantly worried about money. It required a ton of hours, but a technical director was frequently checking in, looking specifically for signs of burn-out and enforcing time off if we shoed any. It was all so gloriously impersonal.

It helped not being subjected to enforced whimsy, and it was nice not having to hear constantly how much better things used to be at Kerner. Best of all, though, was I didn’t have to hear the voice in my head telling me how lucky I was to be working there. Pride in the game and respect for the team just came naturally.

So I guess I have LucasArts to “thank” for that particular epiphany. Objecting to crunch time isn’t objecting to work; it’s objecting to unnecessary work. And there’s nothing callous or Machiavellian about looking into the cost versus benefit of everything you do. The people who are benefitting monetarily from your work almost certainly aren’t you (unless you’ve got a better arrangement than I’ve ever seen in video game development), and they’re almost never around on nights and weekends. It’s not money, so always ask yourself honestly what it is that you’re getting out of your own work. If you’re putting the effort in because you genuinely think it’ll make the game better, then go for it. But if it’s out of some sense of obligation, or an attempt to demonstrate how passionate you are about your job, then you’ve got to ask yourself if it’s really worth it. (It never is).

Happily Ever After, or, Why Won’t You Just Die Already?

Clearly I’m still holding onto a lot of psychic residue from that company. It’s not entirely my fault, though; for a company so fixated on storytelling, LucasArts has failed to stick to a good narrative. It started out good enough: a billionaire filmmaker gathering the best talent he could find, Charlie’s Angels-style, and putting them to work at a secluded ranch north of San Francisco, where they’d go on to redefine an entire medium. Not long after that, though, it just degrades into a predictable story of the brash young creatives vs. a bunch of commerce-oriented “suits” milking the hell out of a bunch of licenses.

As for my part: instead of stepping into the Wonkavator and then flying over the Marin headlands followed by a graceful fade to black, the story I’d set up for myself in college has just dragged on and on. In terms of dramatic structure, it’s been a disaster. Story lines that go nowhere. All the cathartic scenes where I finally get to tell off the People Who’ve Done Me Wrong have never happened, and at this point, the whole reason for those scenes is long forgotten. Big character reveals that happen way, way too late in the story.

And there’s been absolutely no closure on the whole LucasArts chapter. I’d thought there’d be some satisfaction from leaving the company, but it just kind of petered out. I went to work with a bunch of other LEC refugees. Good job, but not a clean break.

Over the years, tons of people left the company to go on to other studios, or start their own. At one point, it sounded like the entire company had been laid off. But it’d always come back in some form or another, and everyone would insist that this time would be different, and this time it was going to go back to like it was in the old days.

For me, I thought the company as I knew it was dead as soon as they stopped publishing The Adventurer. It was the SCUMM games that made me a fan of the games, but The Adventurer that made me a fan of LucasArts. Of course, it was my first exposure to Sam & Max. And reading the previews and interviews and game reviews made it seem as if the company had a soul that existed entirely separate from Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Over time, though, it became more and more just a merchandise catalog and an extension of the marketing arm, until it was wiped out completely. I can’t even remember when exactly they stopped making them — it might’ve even been when I was still working there. Whatever the case, it was something that you couldn’t exactly mourn, but its absence made everything else feel hollow.

As I said, the most rewarding work I’ve had in my entire career has been at another studio formed by ex-LucasArts employees, working with the characters that had made it seem as if LEC had a soul. Even as we tried — and succeeded — to do something new, there was always the very vocal contingent that just wanted to hold a bunch of games from 20 years ago over our heads. (I can remember being asked to be on some panel at PAX one year, and when asked about fan fiction, I said that pretty much my entire career had been based on sequels and licenses, so I was essentially a professional fan fiction writer. It got a laugh from the audience, but still convinced me that a change was in order).

Most recently, there was what felt like another last-gasp attempt to revitalize the “good old” LucasArts by releasing special editions of the first two Monkey Island games. And I was surprised to discover that I just didn’t enjoy them that much anymore. At some point in there, I’d changed without realizing it. And even if they somehow brought the old company back to life entirely, it’s not what I’d want.

I think that’s why many of the eulogies and reminiscences have seemed misguided to me: pointing at Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle and The Secret of Monkey Island, or even The Curse of Monkey Island, isn’t an homage, it’s a straitjacket. It says that all that creativity was in the past, and the best we could hope for would be to duplicate it, in the same narrow parameters established back in 1990. I’ve gotten to the point where I’d rather fail doing something original than be successful at just duplicating someone else’s work. That’s why I respect Double Fine’s resistance to sequels and remakes.

And it’s another big part of why I can’t be upset about the closure of LucasArts. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to want all of that stuff to remain in the past. Even if the studio had stayed open after the sale of Lucasfilm, if you haven’t seen your Day of the Tentacle sequel by 2013, it’s probably time to let go. And I’m highly skeptical that the sequel would be what players really want. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong).

Star Wars: Dark Forces III: Jedi Knight II: The Legacy of Kyle Katarn

Finally, speaking of stories: every story needs a good villain, so why not Disney? It lets LucasArts — the company privately owned by a billionaire — be the plucky underdogs once again. Instead of comically shooting themselves repeatedly in the foot for ten years, they’re instead recast as the last keepers of the flame of originality, snuffed out by an unfeeling corporate giant.

Even though LucasArts has had the most of its success as a licensor over the past few years. (It’s unfortunate that some of the employees take that as an insult or a reflection on their own efforts, when it’s not; we can’t be aware of their efforts internally if we haven’t been allowed to see it). And Disney’s much better at managing licensing deals with external studios than handing in-house development. Now, the licenses can ideally go to studios who really want to work with Star Wars (and possibly one day Indiana Jones), instead of to in-house developers who are obligated to crank out another iteration of the Death Star trench run or the Hoth battle.

So people have been lamenting the death of LucasArts, and I’m asking what died, exactly? Apart from a good team, which will undoubtedly find work elsewhere, there’s a brand and years of terrible management. The big licenses obviously aren’t going anywhere; they were worth four and a half billion dollars.

One of LucasArts’s best games was Dark Forces, and it was a game that only LEC could make. And not for the obvious reason, because LEC had a lock on the Star Wars license. The company could’ve made a straight DOOM clone, slapped a Star Wars skin on it, and it would’ve sold like crazy. Instead, they treated it like a game being published by the interactive arm of a movie company: lots of emphasis on story, cinematics, and cinematic presentation in the level design.

Obviously, RPGs had an emphasis on story, and a lot of them were evolving out of their niche audience by incorporating elements of FPS games. But Dark Forces gave it a wide audience, and it asserted the idea that story is important. I know that until then, I always separated video games into two distinct categories: the adventure games that had interesting stories and characters, and games like DOOM that were rock-stupid but fun. Dark Forces was the first attempt I’d ever seen to accomplish both. I say that without it and Jedi Knight, there wouldn’t have been Half-Life. And without that, the entire state of video game storytelling would be vastly different, if it even existed at all in anything other than niche audiences.

So now we have Portal and Portal 2, two games that recreate the feeling of playing the old adventure games better than any game in recent memory — including the remakes of the old adventures. And I’ve been playing BioShock Infinite, which is a character-driven story set in a cinematic world with wide vistas and plenty of levels devoted entirely to exposition. And I’m looking at all the eulogies of LucasArts and asking, who died? Whether you love it, hate it, or remain in denial about it, the potential of video games as a storytelling medium has been well established.

And for the people lamenting that the end of LucasArts means it’s extremely unlikely we’ll ever see anyone revisit the smaller, original titles: never forget that a big part of what made those games great was their originality.

As far as I’m concerned: I think LucasArts gave us a reminder that talented people are more important than any license. And a lesson about the different ways that passion and commitment can be twisted, not just by employers but by ourselves. And a legacy of storytelling in games with so much potential that we haven’t even begun to explore all the possibilities. I say that the man who got everything he ever wanted didn’t necessarily live happily ever after; he just had to keep coming up with new stuff to want.

Forty-One

Oh, right, I’m totally old now.

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To be fair, I did say, out loud, that I wanted to be at a Disney park for my birthday. But I’d just kind of assumed that it’d be Disneyland, and that I’d be on vacation for a couple of days.

Still, it’s hard to complain about being put up in a sweet hotel that, for as long as I can remember, I’d look across the Seven Seas Lagoon and swear that one day I’d have enough money to be able to stay there.

Also, seeing as how it’s central Florida in late June, it’s hard to complain about working inside an air conditioned building. Especially when your “work” consists of 90% sitting around waiting for something to go wrong. Follow that up with watching fireworks by a volcano pool every night, and feeling no shame in getting a cookie to accompany every meal, and it puts it pretty damn high on the “rad jobs to have” list.

Sure, it would’ve been nice to be with friends or at least my cat on my birthday, but come on: not only is it 41, it’s on a Wednesday. That’s about as boring a non-event as a birthday can be. I’m not sure I know many people who’d be in that celebratory a mood on a Wednesday anyhow.

I’m going to be otherwise detained most of the day, so this is being written on the night before, which I’ve been treating as pre-birthday ramp-up. And it’s been a pretty nice evening, enjoying the lack of rain and relatively cool temperatures, keeping it low-key and relaxing around the hotel while the precious few moments remaining in my brief time on earth drift away into unused nothingness.

Plus I’m totally getting one of those big “it’s my birthday” badges on my way into work tomorrow morning.

In case anybody’s had a comment and not had it show up: try posting it again. The site’s been overwhelmed with spam so it’s entirely possible I’ve been deleting good comments along with the bad.

Forty

I’m going to need another 30 or 40 years to figure this shit out.


The two weeks leading up to a 40th birthday are pretty depressing, but it turns out the actual even hasn’t been any worse than having to pay more expensive health insurance.

Just as I did for my 30th, I spent most of the time leading up to the horrible day going over my to-do list of all the things I’d supposed to have accomplished by the time I got Old, a list I’d started when I was 20. I’m starting to realize that the trick isn’t accomplishing all these things; it’s not worrying so much about the ones that are left undone.

  • Become an animator: F
  • Grow a beard: C (didn’t really commit until it’d already started to turn white)
  • Write a novel: F
  • Get married: F (still illegal thanks to intrusive jackasses)
  • Own a house: F (highly unlikely in the bay area)
  • Learn Japanese: C- (still at a preschooler’s level reading, can’t understand spoken at all)
  • Go to Japan: A (I got to go twice!)
  • Go to Ireland: A (Dublin’s a fantastic city)
  • Work for LucasArts: A
  • Make a Sam & Max game: B+ (still too recent not to focus on what I would’ve done differently)
  • Release my own game: D (it’s in the works, though!)
  • Learn to play banjo: D- (I can play a tortured, basic version of Cripple Creek)

So I’d get an incomplete, which is probably for the best considering either alternative. I could even see myself embracing the whole “Life Begins at 40!” thing. If by “life” you mean “taking lots of fiber supplements.”

Collective Chocolateness

I’m genuinely impressed by the global, decades-long lie that is Nutella

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Tonight out of curiosity I bought my first jar of Nutella. I’m sure I’ve had it before in pastries or some such, but never had my own supply. It was never in the house while I was growing up, and I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before I visited San Francisco and its baffling abundance of crepe restaurants.

So let me see if I’ve got this right: at some point during World War II, some Italian guy decided to put cake frosting in a jar and sell it as something a reasonable person would eat for breakfast. And everybody in Europe said, “What the crap how come we didn’t think of this earlier?” All they had to do was take the picture of a big-ass chocolate cake off the jar, replace it with a picture of a sandwich, call it a “spread,” and then move it a couple of aisles over, next to the peanut butter.

They can even claim it’s part of a “balanced breakfast,” as long as everybody plays it cool and doesn’t ruin it for everyone by pointing out you’re giving kids chocolate cake icing for breakfast. They don’t even have to jump through the marketing hoops that Cookie Crisp had to go through.

My favorite concept from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, and plenty of games inspired by them, is the idea that gods are actually created and powered by faith. I love the idea that if enough believe in something hard enough, it will actually become reality. And I love the idea that if you say “a hint of cocoa” enough times and talk about breakfast, people all over the world will smile and nod and absolve themselves of any guilt over eating the stuff.

Sour Milk

A writer suggests that the It Gets Better project is toothless, feel-good slacktivism, and I’m reluctantly forced to play the “you wouldn’t understand” card.

Note: On re-reading, I regret that this post can seem like it lapses into personal attacks instead of staying directed at the article itself. See the comments for more details.

Earlier this month, a writer named Tom McCormack posted an article titled “Milking It” on the Museum of the Moving Image’s blog. He talks about the It Gets Better project as opposed to the progressive politics of civil rights as depicted in the film Milk. I was kind of hoping that after a couple of weeks preoccupied with work and another writing assignment, I’d be able to respond to the post more objectively. That hasn’t turned out to be the case; it still just rubs me the wrong way all over.

McCormack’s main point is that the videos are a perfect example of how the civil rights movement — in particular the push for gay rights and women’s liberation — has transformed from the radical and militant views of the late 70s into a push for patience, tolerance, and feel-good statements that everything’s going to be fine if we all just work together. He fears that the videos’ attitude will let us all become complacent, convinced that we’ve done something positive when we’ve in fact done nothing to help. And he points out that the need for the videos should be a dramatic warning sign that everything’s most definitely not all right.

And that’s a valid point, and probably something that needed to be made explicit.

Where the article falls apart, though, is when McCormack starts speculating on what effect the videos are having, and starts picking targets and speculating about how much more they could be doing. Unfortunately, it all reads like a pitch-perfect parody of the Clueless Self-Absorbed Liberal. I’d think it were some kind of GOP plant if the vocabulary were less sophisticated.

For instance:

I’m not entirely sure of the effect the It Gets Better videos are having on LGBT youth throughout the country. It’s conceivable, even probable, that they are doing unimaginable good, possibly literally saving lives. But I am sure of how these videos are functioning among young, liberal, educated urbanites like myself: they’re comfort food. […] they also offer a chance to momentarily step into the role of disadvantaged LGBT youths stranded in unwelcoming communities […] The liberal city-dweller is allowed a Clintonian “I feel your pain” moment, without actually having to feel any pain, and, as a bonus, is told that these kids will be just fine—when they move nearby.

Well, I hate to break it to you, Mr. Straight White Male Cinema Studies Major, but maybe these videos aren’t all about you.

Now, of course I realize that the article’s addressed to a very specific audience, those of us who are watching the videos from a safe distance instead of being directly addressed by them. But still, holy smokes! It’s astounding how quickly and callously he acknowledges that maybe the videos intended to stop suicides might actually be stopping suicides, and immediately puts focus back on what really matters: how it affects people like him.

You really can’t give it a pass, because we’re talking about a group of people who are trained to make themselves invisible, and who are told through adulthood that their problems don’t matter. Gay men and women’s desire to serve in the military isn’t as important as some vocal minority worrying they’ll get ogled in the shower. Their desire to get married isn’t as important as some well-funded church group ignoring the first amendment and complaining that their religion is under attack.

And when there’s story after story of young men committing suicide after being outed or even suspected of being gay, and a video series is created in response, what’s the reaction we keep seeing over and over again? “All kids have it bad! Man up!” “We need to put a stop to all bullying, not just for gay kids!” No matter what the issue, there’s always some moron who pipes up with “What about the straight people?” Even simply acknowledging that you’re homosexual is instantly decried as “shoving it in people’s faces” and “asking for special treatment.”

So you want to put a stop to all bullying? Fine, just do it on your own time. Don’t try to steal the attention away from gay kids who really need someone to listen to them and tell them they’re not alone. And when an article like McCormack’s effectively says, “Yes, suicide is very sad, but what about the zeitgeist?!” it trivializes the issue; it diverts attention away from people who are seriously in crisis. It’s basically doing the same thing that the article accuses us all of doing.

To illustrate the difference between 70s “radical leftism” and the modern-day “more accommodating liberalism,” McCormack uses a scene from the film Milk. In that scene, Harvey Milk receives a phone call from a kid who’s planning to commit suicide because his parents are going to send him to a hospital to “fix” his homosexuality. (And in case anyone out there hadn’t heard of this: that’s not just a 70s thing; there’s still a very vocal “ex-gay” movement and it’s still fucking horrific). In the film, Milk doesn’t tell the kid to wait it out and be confident that his life will get better. He tells the kid that there’s nothing wrong with him that needs to be fixed, and that he needs to leave home and get to the closest big city, where he’ll find people who will support him.

McCormack does concede that leaving home to live on the streets was a different prospect in the 70s than it would be today, but I’m not sure he — or the other detractors of the project — fully appreciates what the “It Gets Better” videos are trying to address. And at the risk of diverting attention away from kids who need help back to myself, I can only explain what I think the videos do and why I think they’re important.
Continue reading “Sour Milk”

Seven Days

Sometimes you just have to know when to quit.

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It’s only been about seven days since I quit smoking, but I haven’t actually wanted a cigarette in years. That’s one of the (many) problems with smoking: it doesn’t take long for it to turn from a vice into a full-blown addiction.

Where I’ve always failed to quit before is by thinking of it as giving something up. Even though I didn’t ever enjoy it any more, I’d gotten convinced that I’d be missing something if I quit. So here’s all the stuff I’ll really be missing:

  • Having every cold last an extra two or three weeks because I can’t stop coughing
  • For that matter: being absolutely miserably sick with a cold, coughing so bad I’m retching, and still feeling the need to go outside for a cigarette every hour or so
  • Walking a few steps behind whatever group I’m with, so the smoke doesn’t blow on them
  • Missing the last minute or so of every conversations because I’m already planning how and where I’m going to have a cigarette as soon as the conversation ends and I can get outside
  • Instinctively reaching for the cigarette pack the moment I step outside, whether I want one or not
  • Making people wait for me in or around smoking areas before we can go inside or keep moving
  • Leaving my new bike in the garage, since I always had a permanent excuse not to exercise
  • Finding stray cigarette buts all around the trash can in my kitchen
  • The big black spot on the heel of my shoe
  • Having to go through security twice on flights where I have a layover, since I have to head outside the moment the first leg of the flight lands
  • Getting rained on
  • Getting rained on in the cold
  • Teeth the color of butterscotch pudding
  • Having a layer of ash that looks like dandruff on the chest of every dark shirt
  • Taking five times as long to write anything, since every time I get stuck I have to go outside and have a cigarette

I can’t get excited about saving money yet, since I’m still on the nicotine patch, and those things are at least as expensive as a half-pack a day. But that’ll be another bonus in a few weeks, once I no longer need to be able to furiously rub the patch every time I have a craving. Not to mention all the other crap that nicotine addiction adds to the mix.

Of course, I won’t look nearly as cool as I used to, sucking down a known carcinogen that gives you bad breath yellow teeth and can cause high blood pressure and impotence, but that’s a sacrifice I’ll just have to make.

Better

My own meager contribution to the idea that life is pretty awesome.


The It Gets Better Project has thousands of entries, and I think it’s frankly wonderful that it’s gotten ubiquitous enough that individual entries don’t stand out all that much. But I haven’t felt like I had anything to contribute. I talk about all kinds of mundane, personal stuff on here, but I’ve never talked about being gay except where it intersects with politics. Partly because it’s not really anyone’s business, partly because I never felt that there was much to tell.

Besides, plenty of people have already covered it more eloquently than I could: there’s the moving address given by Fort Worth city councilman Joel Burns. Employees of Facebook shared their stories in a compilation video. The pastor of a church in my hometown sacrificed his privacy to explain his situation and explain how he reconciles his sexuality with his religion. And there’s the amazing video above from employees of Pixar, taking their personal stories of the difficult times they went through, and turning them into a message of hope.

And that’s when I realized I was missing the point. These individual messages are powerful, but the most powerful thing is the outpouring of support for the cause; the real power is the number of individuals willing to come forward. The thing that strikes me the most about the videos is how much they have in common, how many of the same experiences we’ve all shared — gay, straight, or otherwise. The message is that we’re not alone, we’re not the only one in the world going through this. I can’t help but wonder how my life would’ve changed for the better if I’d seen these videos when I was 13, or 16, or 23, or, in my case, even 32. And when doing something as simple as sharing your story can have such a profound effect, then keeping silent no longer seems like staying private or showing decorum. Keeping quiet just seems irresponsible.

So here’s some of my experience, and some of the stuff I’ve learned over the years. Stuff I would tell myself if I could go back in time to the most miserable points of my life, before I came out. And it starts with the promise that your life can be absolutely amazing, if you let it.

I was relatively lucky: I was bullied in middle school and teased in high school, but more often for being a nerd than for being gay. The worst I got was “sissy.” Other kids had it far worse, and to the kids who’ve had the courage to come out while still in school: you’ve got my respect. My own response was to try desperately to keep it hidden. The most horrifying thing I could imagine was how I’d be abandoned and my life would be ruined if anyone ever found out. I found out later that the people who I genuinely cared about already knew or suspected, and they didn’t care.

You’ll frequently hear people talk about choice when they talk about being gay. And there is a choice: you can choose to accept who you are, or you can choose to build your entire life based on other people’s expectations of you.

For my part, I put being gay into the “unacceptable” category, believing I could compartmentalize it and keep it from ruining everything else. I thought if I denied it long enough, I’d eventually get “better.” I thought if I prayed hard enough, it’d go away. I buried myself under schoolwork or, later, regular work, convincing myself that it was an acceptable substitute for having a personal life. I convinced myself that nobody could ever find me attractive, because it was easier than admitting to myself that I wasn’t attracted to the people I was supposed to be attracted to.

And I got better at convincing myself I was happy, because I was doing The Right Thing. I believed what I’d been taught. Gay people all act and talk a certain way, like they do on TV. They’re all promiscuous and hedonistic, because they lack willpower. All they talk or think about is sex. And they’re so tiresome: they all define their entire lives around being gay. There were all the made-for-TV movies and documentaries about how horrible it was for women when their husbands or boyfriends came out; how selfish could those guys be? I didn’t have anything in common with that! I just wanted — desperately wanted — to be normal, so surely that couldn’t be me. Those people were different. So I could be an ugly social reject with no possibility of ever finding love, but at least I was better than them.

That was my choice, and I lived with it for over fifteen years. I heard my friends talk about who they were attracted to, and I’d duck out of the conversation or become silent and sullen. I’d see them start relationships, get married, have children, and realize that that was never going to be an option for me. I’d see someone I was attracted to and I’d go quiet, because I was embarrassed and ashamed that I hadn’t done a better job of suppressing it. I convinced myself that I was happy and that everything was fine, without realizing that I’d lost all hope.

When I was younger, I would’ve said it was melodramatic to compare it to dying, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it. I’d effectively killed a part of myself. And over time, I got more preoccupied with thoughts of how to finish the job. There wasn’t any one event, but a long, gradual process of just giving up. I’d withdrawn from my friends. I’d lost around 40 pounds because I just didn’t care about eating. And for months I’d spend every night in bed staring at the ceiling, asking myself what was the point of going on like this. What was the point of living when there’s no hope of ever being anything but broken and lonely?

But then, the part that I never, ever would’ve believed: it got better. I met another gay guy and actually got to know him instead of dismissing him as a stereotype, which had always been easier. I realized I didn’t have to talk or behave a certain way, or let it take over my life. I could stay every bit as boring and nerdy as I wanted to be, and I didn’t have to be ashamed of myself for it or anything else.

For years, I’d been afraid of how my friends would react if I ever came out. The reaction from the first friend I told? He said “Really? Good on you!” without skipping a beat, and he bought me a beer. What about the friends I’d had for longer, would they be angry that I’d been lying to them for so long? They said okay and made a joke. But of course my friends in San Francisco would be okay with it; what about my friends from home and college? I got congratulations, and then they returned to treating it as a non-issue. I’d spent so many years withdrawing from my friends for fear of losing them. Not only did I not lose anyone over it, but I’m a better friend now that I can be open and happy.

And now, six years later, I can honestly say that I’m open and happy. On the surface, it doesn’t look like much has changed in the past six years. But there’s a world of difference. I don’t feel the constant need to watch what I say, out of fear. People complain that gay people are always going on about being gay — I used to be one of them — but they just don’t understand what it’s like to be surrounded by people casually talking about their relationships without the fear that they’ll slip up and use the wrong pronoun. And now, even at my lowest points, I can go to bed looking forward to what’s going to happen tomorrow instead of feeling the hopelessness of having to face everything alone.

It’s no epiphany; it’s an ongoing process, and I’m getting better. At first, I was happy that I could still be normal, but I’m getting better at understanding that there’s no such thing. I put so much value into not conforming to a gay stereotype, that I didn’t realize how judgmental I’d gotten. But if normal’s what we value, then we’re always going to be valuing ourselves and others based on how well we conform to other people’s expectations. It may be a while before I stop feeling a little apprehension at the sight of a Folsom Street Fair or pride parade, before I’m able to remember what each of those people had to go through in order to be open. “Be True to Yourself” is such a simple and overused concept, but so difficult to practice. And sometimes, even more difficult to respect in others.

So to the younger me, and to anyone reading who’s been going through similar stuff: believe that it does get better. Nobody can guarantee your problems will all disappear. You’ll still run into bullies. You’ll encounter people who will judge you based not on who you are, but on a part of what you are. You’ll be pressured to conform to what other people expect of you. You’ll be told, either explicitly or more subtly, that you’re sinful, lustful, weak, confused, selfish, mentally ill, or undeserving of love or family.

But I can guarantee that you will also experience moments of such profound joy that you’ll find yourself with tears in your eyes. Moments of inexplicable kindness, or unexpected beauty.

And they’re compounded, as each one builds on the last. You can’t predict them, and you can’t control them. But you have to choose them, and to do that, you have to accept that you deserve them.

The greatest moments of my life have always been simple things: time spent with friends. A message of encouragement that I hadn’t expected. The exhilaration that comes from finishing a project. They’re all better now, because I can be more honest with my friends. I’m getting better at accepting encouragement with grace. I’m better able to appreciate work I’ve done, without immediately looking for faults because I must’ve done something wrong. And now I can add the simple things I’d long thought were unavailable to me: holding someone’s hand in public, or just plain talking to a friend about a guy I like. Add up enough of these simple moments, and you end up with a pretty spectacular life.

Si, so low we can’t hear you

Travel don’ts for the solitary urbanite

Down Main StreetIt seemed reasonable enough: I had to be in Orlando for business, I just left my job and felt like I could use a vacation, and I like Walt Disney World. Love roller coasters, love Aerosmith, hello. I still stand behind my logic leading up to this decision.

Perfect logic or not, I can’t recommend it. It’s not even like I’ve never been to places inappropriate for the Lonely Planet treatment. Paris? Just hit the Louvre, take photos from the top of the Eiffel Tower, and skip the moonlight walks along the Seine. Venice? Just glare at the guys trying to sell you roses and go to the next museum. Disneyland? I can’t really recommend it, but they get enough annual passholders that you can make a go of it solo. But Disney World may be the most inhospitable place for the single guy outside of a Lamaze class.

It’s not as if the parks failed me somehow; the place is just plain designed for families or couples on their way to being families. And the result of going solo is that you end up at the Orlando airport going through what felt like every single side effect listed in ads for Abilify.

But hey, Disney World! I’ve been at least thirty times and I still see something new each time, and this trip was no different. One of the unexpected highlights was the “Gran Fiesta Tour” in the Mexico pavilion at Epcot, formerly “El Rio del Tiempo.” It’s still not an E-Ticket, but it’s got exactly the right touch and tone: still all the charm or the original ride but without feeling embarrassingly dated, and still a tourist promotion for Mexico but without feeling too dry. Plus they brought the characters back, which is something Epcot’s always needed, and they did it the cool way by using the Three Caballeros.

The Main Street Electrical Parade isn’t new, but it’s back, and it still does a great job of making me feel like a six year old again.

I finally got to play through all of the missions in the final version of the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure, and it’s pretty cool, and it seems to be pretty popular. It also gets you into parts of the pavilion you haven’t seen before. In the Japan pavilion, I found the other new-for-me thing, an exhibit called “Spirited Beasts.” It has a display devoted to different types of Obakemono (creatures of Japanese folklore) with representations from traditional art, toys and anime. And it’s the perfect kind of exhibit for Epcot: it teaches about Japanese folklore by making it relevant to the audience. I was very impressed.

Plus it was the first time I’d ever seen the hotel I stayed at, and they let you take a riverboat to Downtown Disney. And the only advantage to going alone: they’ve got single rider lines all over the place, so I got to ride Expedition Everest like five times in a row. That coaster gets better the more I ride it.

So I still recommend everybody take an extended trip to Disney World, just take a buddy. And deodorant.